Measure calls for ‘greening’ of electronics

In the first week of sales, a remarkable 500,000 Americans purchased the new iPad. An equally dramatic number of these customers, however, were in the dark about the full spectrum of iPad’s functionality. Few knew what the iPad actually does. This exemplifies well the strength of the cultural compulsion in America to own the latest electronic gadget, irrespective of actual need or purpose.

IPad sales are indicative of a global trend: Electronic gadget ownership is on the rise throughout the world. Cell phones, for example, rank highest, in terms of ownership, with nearly 5 billion mobile subscribers globally. Televisions, computers, and compact disc players can be found in the majority of most American households, and increasingly the same goes for developing countries. Who would have thought that Lithuania would rank 1st in mobile subscribers and Estonia would rank 21st in computer ownership per capita, or that the Czech Republic would rank one percentage point behind the U.S. in television ownership per household. Electronics know no boundary. Rich and poor alike, nations are increasingly plugging in.

This technological growth spurt has obvious and direct benefits for each country’s economic development, with poorer countries relying on mobile phones for banking, transfers, markets and trading. Computers, too, represent a host of development benefits, from new educational opportunities, to better business practices, to archival and data storage, and to Internet economic and international connectivity.

Buried amidst this electronics boom, however, is the discomfiting reality that this growth will be coupled with a boom of another sort — that of greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2030, new electronic gadgets will triple their energy consumption to 1,700 terawatt hours. That is a lot of new energy and the equivalent of the home electricity consumption of the U.S. and Japan combined. According to the IEA, the international community will have to build over 15,000 wind turbines (or 200 nuclear power plants) to power all the TVs, iPods, PCs and other home electronics expected to be plugged in by 2030. The electric bill to power all household electronics will top $200 billion a year, compared with last year’s bill of $80 billion.

Most of this increase in consumer electronics will occur in developing countries, where economic growth is outpacing developed nations and ownership rates of gadgets are lowest. While every country has a right to this kind of development, keep in mind that this proliferation of electronic devices, if not made more energy efficient, will undermine efforts to increase energy security and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

The answer to this problem will not be found in stemming the tide of electronic gadget envy, no matter how functional or entertaining the device. The answer is found in better devices that are built more efficiently and run on less energy. Currently, electronic gadgets account for roughly 15 percent of household electric consumption. According to some sources, this share equates to roughly 500 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, and will double by 2030 to 1 billion tons of CO2 per year if nothing is done to green the electronics industry. We already have existing technologies that could reduce gadgets’ energy consumption by more than 30 percent at no cost or by more than 50 percent at a small cost.

If the technologies exist, why are we not using them? The transition to more energy efficient gadgets and energy grids requires clear incentives and standards — a tall order for a primarily voluntary environment where the greening process is not mandated. I intend to help fix this through my Smart Electronics Act, H.R. 5070, which I introduced earlier this week. (“Smart electronics” is defined in the bill as having characteristics like efficient transmission, power factor correction, low-power switchable modes, off-peak operation and charging, stand-by power, and so forth.)

My bill requires the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to report to Congress within a year on several key areas to ensure we achieve the clarity needed for industry to thrive. First, the DOE and EPA must assess the potential for energy efficient electronics to receive an Energy Star designation, a program that primarily applies to household appliances, and the potential savings accrued (for example, cost and energy) through a specific program focused on smart electronics. Second, they must assess the global growth of electronics usage and utilization and the associated energy consumption. Lastly, the bill calls for the DOE and EPA to standardize a process for defining, categorizing, and ranking technologies as “smart.”

Importantly, this legislation helps us green the electronics industry by providing the private sector with reliable standards and incentives and by educating and empowering consumers to make smarter and more efficient choices — all of which help cool the planet. By doing so, we also help democratize energy. The more ubiquitous smart electronics become here in the U.S., as a result of the new standards and incentives we can produce in coordination with the DOE and EPA, the lower the costs of efficient electronics. This makes it possible not only for households in my state of California to go green, but households in Calcutta, Caracas and Cairo as well.

Honda is a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.